Once upon a time, there was only one DSLR to rule them all when it came to shooting video – the beloved Canon 5D Mark II. Hearing the cries of filmmakers everywhere, a team of developers built a piece of open-source software that runs alongside Canon’s software to unlock a multitude of features. The project was called Magic Lantern. Originally released to work specifically on the 5D Mark II, it has since been ported to work on various Canon model DSLRs, with some cameras having more or less features depending on the internal hardware of each camera it was ported to.
Although many refer to Canon’s running Magic Lantern as “hacked” 5Ds, according to the magic lantern website, “Magic Lantern is not a “hack”, or a modified firmware, it is an independent program that runs alongside Canon’s own software. Each time you start your camera, Magic Lantern is loaded from your memory card. Our only modification was to enable the ability to run software from the memory card.”
Magic Lantern unlocked features like HDR video, time lapse functionality, motion detection, focus assist tools, manual audio controls among others. Once Canon released the 5D Mark III, Magic Lantern added the ability to record in RAW a feature typically reserved for top-tier cinema cameras. Typically, video files compress video by throwing away a lot of information that it thinks you won’t want or need in order to save on file size and prevent the camera from overheating. Shooting in RAW, specifically on the Mark III, means that this compression does not occur and instead each frame that comes off of the sensor is saved individually and as an uncompressed image file. On the Mark III, each frame is saved as a .DNG file or a digital negative, a lossless raw image format that was developed by Adobe.
5D Mark III (ML) – Example of what RAW video looks like compared to H.264
The first time I saw the video above, I was desperate to try out Magic Lantern for myself, but the opportunity to use it seemed like it would ever come to fruition unless the stars aligned. One day last year the stars did indeed align when Untold was tasked to produce a lifestyle video for our client, Regal Boats.
Files sizes are HUGE! Each frame was roughly 4.2MB. One minute of captured video was roughly 6GB!
Our concept was to produce a lifestyle video that focused on the activities and adventures that families could embark on with a boat, rather than the boat itself. We had a tight deadline, with Regal’s dealership conference where the video would be shown just several weeks away, as well as a tight budget and a skeleton crew. I was in charge of manning the camera so I knew I would need something that was portable and light, but also gave us a lot of room to wiggle around in post since I knew we were going to have to move very fast come the day of the shoot as we only had one day to shoot a very ambitious shot list. In order to execute our vision, the creative team had to put on their thinking caps. I knew it was time try out the Magic Lantern “hack”. You can see the result in the video below.
As you can see, the resulting video quality was fantastic. Both the creative team and our client were floored with the final product. I loved the experience I had grading the footage in post, but actually shooting the video was an entirely different story.
Still, with over 14 stops of dynamic range and 14 bit color depth, any strife experience while using this camera is worth every penny in the end.
Let’s face it, this camera was never designed to BE a video camera, it’s just not. It does the job in terms of image quality, and clearly does it well, but it can be frustrating, sometimes downright infuriating, using a system designed for taking stills. (Not to mention the Magic Lantern software stacked on top of that!) Still, with over 14 stops of dynamic range and 14 bit color depth, any strife experience while using this camera is worth every penny in the end.
If you’ve been toying with the idea of shooting your next project on a 5D Mark III with the Magic Lantern firmware installed on it, I’ve compiled a small list of pros and cons in my experience using the camera.
– RAW, RAW, RAW!
– You don’t have to worry about white balance.
– Image quality that rivals bigger more expensive cinema cameras like the Red Epic.
– Records files in camera to CF cards.
– Even though it shoots RAW, you still have to worry about ISO.
– CF cards that can write RAW files are very expensive.
– We lost a few shots because the camera would freeze intermittently during record.
– Playback of recorded clips in camera is basically useless.
– Files sizes are HUGE! Each frame was roughly 4.2MB. One minute of captured video was roughly 6GB!
– Hard to see rear LCD to monitor image outdoors in bright sunlight.
– Difficult to gauge accurate exposure.
– The post workflow is difficult, convoluted, and time consuming. Expect to spend lots of time in post.
The cons of using this camera in practice outweigh the pros, but when it comes time to grade your image, you’ll forget the pains of that fateful production and be more excited than ever that you have a ridiculously flexible image to work with in post.In the end, we ended up with nearly a terabyte of raw video files.
Luckily, we did our research on Magic Lantern and knew the cons of working with this camera going into the project. Since we didn’t need sync sound and we were more interested in capturing “specific candid moments”, we decided the risks were worth the image quality we were able to achieve. I’m not sure if I’d use this camera on another professional project, unless there was a specific need for capturing RAW video, or the scope of the project allowed for some flexibility in shoot schedule and post.
If you have had a good (or bad) experience using Magic Lantern on your Canon DSLR and would like to share your insights, feedback, or just ask a questions, please leave a comment below!